Tenor Guitar Guide: What You NEED to Know

Eastwood is proud to be the leading makers of tenor guitars today, so it's about time we did a comprehensive guide! Find out why you should play a tenor guitar, who plays tenor, and much more...

Tenor Guitar Guide

The four-stringed tenor guitar may be an instrument from the past, but modern musicians all over the world have been rediscovering the electric tenor guitar's many subtle virtues, from its strong, cutting tone for rhythmic accompaniment to the wide array of useful tunings available.

Eastwood Guitars has a wide variety of electric tenor guitars that both look amazing (check out our Flying TV tenor) and sound fantastic (don't miss the Warren Ellis Tenor Baritone and the Warren Ellis Tenor 2P tenors).

Eastwood tenor guitars can stake out their own special sonic space in any musical combo, in any genre. Long gone are the days when tenor guitars were used only in jazz!

Classic Tenor in Natural finish

Picture: Classic 4 tenor guitar

What is a tenor guitar?

A tenor guitar is a 4-string, short-scale guitar with roots that go back more than a century, to the golden age of acoustic instrument production. Originally marketed as an easy way that tenor banjo players of the day could double on guitar, the tenor guitar's charms have persisted to the modern day and, now, a new legion of players is discovering that the tenor guitar offers a unique voice and tone for adventurous musicians searching for new inspiration.

Classic Tenor

Picture: Classic 4 tenor guitar

Why play a tenor guitar?

The tenor guitar has a distinctive style of its own, and there is literally no limit to the many kinds of sounds and rhythms that can be drawn from this fantastic instrument. Tenor guitars can be heard in country, western swing and jazz, as well as contemporary folk and pop music.

A Brief History of the Tenor Guitar

The tenor guitar was initially developed in the mid to late 1920s by the Gibson Guitar Company and C. F. Martin & Company. Tenor guitars enabled players of the four-string tenor banjo to double on guitar without having to learn the six string guitar.

The tenor guitar can be considered to be a transition instrument between Dixieland banjo and the six string swing guitar, particularly as it started to outpace the tenor banjo in popularity, towards the end of the 1920s. This trend quickened when important players of the period like Eddie Lang and Carl Kress, switched from banjo to six string guitars.

vintage tenor guitar

Picture: vintage tenor guitar


In the early 1930s, Selmer Guitars in Paris manufactured four-string guitars based on designs by the Italian luthier, Mario Maccaferri, and marketed the instruments to banjo players as a second guitar-like instrument.

As the six string guitar became more popular in the 1930s and 1940s, tenor guitars became less played, but returned to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s due to the Dixieland jazz revival and the folk music boom.

The Martin 0-18T flat top acoustic tenor guitar was played in the late 1950s by Nick Reynolds of The Kingston Trio, a hugely popular folk act of the period. In the mid-1950's, electric solid-body tenor guitars made their stage debut.

How Are Tenor Guitars Tuned?

One of the attractions of the tenor guitar is the variety of available tunings. Tenors are typically tuned in fifths (usually CGDA, similar to the tenor banjo, mandola, or the viola), although other tunings are also common. 'Guitar tuning,' 'Chicago tuning,' 'baritone ukulele tuning,' 'Irish' or 'octave mandolin' tuning and various open tunings for slide playing are also commonly employed on a tenor guitar.

Warren Ellis Tenor.

Picture: Warren Ellis Tenor. Yes... you could even tune this like an ukulele!

 

The fifths tuning remains popular because it facilitates easy moveable chord shapes and the chord voicings are much more spread out and 'open' than on a six string guitar. Tenor guitars normally have a scale length similar to that of the tenor banjo, between 21 and 23 inches (53 and 58 cm).

A major player of the electric tenor as a lead guitarist in the bebop and rhythm and blues styles from the 1940s to the 1970s was jazz guitarist Tiny Grimes, who recorded with Cats and The Fiddle, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and others. Grimes used a DGBE (guitar) tuning on his tenor guitars, rather than the typical CGDA tenor tuning.

Our Warren Ellis Series Tuning Guide includes some suggestions of tenor guitar tunings and the best string gauges to use for each.

Who Plays Tenor Guitars?

Since 2001, there has been an marked increased interest in the tenor guitar. The tenor guitar is often used by musicians looking to replace or augment sounds produced by more conventional instruments or simply to add a new sound that is both familiar and strikingly fresh. Contemporary players include Neko Case, Josh Rouse, Joel Plaskett, Adam Gnade, Ani DiFranco, Carrie Rodriguez and Joe Craven.

Neko Case and her SG-style tenor

Picture: Neko Case and her SG-style tenor

Elvis Costello features a tenor guitar on the title track of his 2004 release, 'Delivery Man.' On the video for 'Club Date: Elvis Costello & the Imposters Live in Memphis,' Costello is seen playing an orange 1958 Gretsch Chet Atkins 6120 single cutaway archtop tenor guitar.

The late Jason Molina played a tenor guitar for much of his early work as Songs: Ohia. Wes Borland, guitarist for rock rap band Limp Bizkit, played a low-tuned (F#1-F#2-B2-E3) tenor guitar on the songs "Nookie", "The One", "Full Nelson," and "Stalemate."

Warren Ellis, (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Dirty Three, Grinderman, film soundtracks) uses his custom-made, Mustang-shaped, Eastwood Guitars electric tenors for a wide range of tones and colors.

Thanks to our wide range of models, Eastwood Guitars are the leading makers of tenor guitars right now, and we currently offers a full line of exciting Warren Ellis electric tenor guitars, besides other models part of our Classic Series and Custom Shop.

All of our tenor guitars incorporate modern manufacturing and design techniques to deliver matchless electric instruments, built to inspire creativity. 

What are you waiting for? Time to join the tenor guitar revolution!

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1 comment

  • Hi I have a Tenor Guitar and would like it to sound more like a rhythm guitar. At the moment it is tuned to CDGA but with the G and A string tuned an octave down. Would appreciate any advice.
    Thank You.

    Malc Hurrell

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